Bhutan’s response to Covid-19: Challenges and opportunities for Bhutan, Bangladesh and India

The remarkable success of Bhutan’s fight against the pandemic can be summed up in one sentence: Not a single life has been lost to Covid-19 so far.  

The first case of Covid-19 was imported via a tourist from the US on March 5. He was 76 years old and was suffering from other serious medical conditions. Against the overwhelming odds he survived and eventually made full recovery but not before His Majesty The King spent a sleepless night at the health ministry, monitoring his condition with other members of the Cabinet.  

Bhutan’s outstanding results can be attributed to the following: 

Bhutan’s has been successful in responding to the virus because of great leadership of His Majesty The King. On March 22, His Majesty spoke to the people on National TV with his characteristic love, sincerity and clarity. He explained the reasons behind the tough measures being undertaken to deal with the pandemic. The Royal Address was serious and sobering, also reassuring and comforting.

On March 24, four days after the Birth of the second Prince, His Majesty embarked on a nationwide tour to meet local authorities, frontline workers, students, farmers and to see first-hand the measures put in place to deal with the pandemic. Such tours have been undertaken in 19 out of 20 districts. As I write this, His Majesty The King and His Majesty the Fourth King are in different parts of southern Bhutan that share open borders with the neighboring Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. 

The Government has a core team with strong health background. Prime Minister is a practicing surgeon and health minister is public health expert. Both foreign minister and health secretary are medical doctors.  Three out of the four are products of the excellent medical institutions in Bangladesh. 

The Ministry of Health has also been proactive. By the time WHO declared coronavirus a global emergency in January, facilities and response teams had already been identified. A National Preparedness and Response Plan was ready by February. All these activities were carried out under the personal guidance of His Majesty The King. 

Bhutan has followed the proven strategy of Test, Trace and Treat. When a person tests positive, he or she is kept in isolation unit and further confined to de-isolation for 14 days before being discharged. All primary contacts are traced immediately and put in quarantine facility for 21 days. 

During the first National Lockdown in August which lasted for three weeks people abided by the rules while government agencies and volunteers distributed essential items. Senior citizens received extra support from His Majesty’s Welfare Office including the option of moving to a medical facility. People who could not afford to buy essential items were provided assistance. 

A ‘secret weapon’ in Bhutan’s battle against the pandemic is the multifarious services provided by ubiquitous volunteers in orange suits called de-suup who have undergone rigorous training in community service. His Majesty initiated the programme in 2011 and, today, there are around 15,000 de-suups providing critical support to health workers and law enforcement agencies. Members of the Royal Family and a former prime minister signed up to become de-suup. Her Majesty the Queen is an ardent supporter and often provides pack meals to these volunteers in the capital from the Palace Kitchen.  

Bhutan, like all other countries, faces immense challenges due to the adverse impact on our economy, especially the tourism sector. His Majesty initiated a National Resilience Fund of Nu 30 billion (USD 400M), which compared to Bhutan’s GDP is perhaps the biggest economic relief package in the world. The NRF grants 100 percent interest waiver on any loan from April to Sept 2020. It was reduced to 50 percent interest waiver from October 2020 till March 2021. The fund was established to provide monthly allowance to around 23,000 who lost their jobs. 

And, of course, Bhutan’s efforts in tackling Covid-19 would not have been possible without the support of the international community.  

Despite their own challenges and lockdowns, India kept the supply chain of essential commodities and medicines to Bhutan open. Prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, was among the first leaders to send medical equipment and medicines to Bhutan. The Republic of Korea, Australia, Sweden, and Singapore contributed in cash and kind.  

This pandemic presents immense challenges, but there are also opportunities. 

Bhutan and Bangladesh recently agreed to sign a Preferential Trade Agreement that will give duty-free access to additional 16 products from Bhutan. (The former Ambassador of Bangladesh to Bhutan, Jishnu Roy Choudhury and I had the honor of seeing this project through during our tenure).  We also facilitated the successful trial-run of transporting 1,000 MT of stone aggregates from Bhutan using inland waterways from Dubri in Assam, India to Naryanganj Port Dhaka in 2019. Given the huge reservoir of goodwill that exists between Bangladesh, Bhutan, and India the hurdles that exist in using inland waterways can be overcome permanently. That means making Bhutan’s export of stones to Bangladesh faster and cheaper.  

In the last couple of years exports from Bhutan to Bangladesh has grown significantly. In 2016, our export figure was USD 32M, which increased to USD 47.11M in 2017, which further rose to USD 80.38M in 2018. 

If Bhutanese trucks can ply directly from Bhutan to Bangladesh under the framework of BBIN it would make trade more cost effective. The leaders of India and Bangladesh are sensitive and aware of Bhutan’s fragile and limited road infrastructure and may consider our border towns as points to unload all cargo. Rejecting BBIN completely is not in Bhutan’s interest. 

Bangladesh is keen to import hydropower from Bhutan and willing to invest. In May 2016, foreign minister of Bangladesh declared that his prime minister approved USD 1B for the 1,125 MW Dorjilung Hydropower Project. Such a Trilateral project will serve as an example of sub-regional cooperation, benefiting all three participating countries. 

Bangladesh could serve as a regional internet hub, which will help both Bhutan and Northeast India.  Lack of internet connection almost paralysed Bhutan when internet connections crashed during Cyclone Amphan in May. The governments of Bhutan, Bangladesh, and India have been discussing the possibility of Bhutan importing internet bandwidth from Bangladesh and, in 2016, a technical survey team from Bhutan identified two routes for the project. 

Once Covid-19 vaccine is discovered, Bhutan must not expect tourists from the West and East to come flocking to Bhutan. We must also target high-end tourists from the region who can spend at par with tourists from the West or East.  Those who are exempt from paying USD 200-250 can be enticed to visit during the off-season when hotels and other facilities are under utilised. GNH and our pristine environment can be promoted. 

The Corona virus will continue to cast a dark shadow over our lives for years to come. But as His Majesty The King keeps reminding the Bhutanese people that if we all come together and tackle the challenges as a team with imagination, fortitude and commitment there is nothing we cannot overcome. 

Contributed by 

Sonam Tobden Rabgye, Bhutan’s Ambassador to Bangladesh from 2016-2019.

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